Foreign Affairs

Same Axis, More Evil

Across the Atlantic, the “special relationship” meant the American-British alliance, the core of the alliance that defeated Hitler in a hot war and the Soviet Union in a cold one.

But now the “special relationship” is between Iran and North Korea, the two nations which prove daily that the “axis of evil” idea wasn’t just another poor choice of words by George W. Bush.

In late July, a cargo ship carrying North Korean weapons bound for Iran was seized by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The seizure was the first since the United Nations Security Council stiffened a tough arms embargo against North Korea in the wake of its second nuclear test in May. The UNSC sanctions authorize ship searches on the high seas and complement sanctions already in place against Iran that are intended to curb its nuclear weapons development program.

There are a number of things wrong with this picture. The most obvious problem is the open working arrangement between Iran and North Korea to develop deliverable nuclear weapons. Both countries have made it abundantly clear that they hold Iran’s obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and UNSC resolutions aimed at curbing North Korea’s proliferation activities in about the same regard as they do the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

North Korea was caught building a nuclear reactor in Syria (destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007) and defector reports recently made public allege Pyongyang is also helping Myanmar to build a nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction plant. It was specifically to authorize interdiction of North Korean shipments of nuclear-related material to this rogues gallery of global pariah states that the UNSC passed Resolution 1874 on June 12, banning all arms exports from North Korea. Likely not the first or the last North Korean ship to challenge the new measures, the Australian-owned, Bahamian-flagged cargo ship, the ANL Australia, that was seized in the UAE was nevertheless the one that made headlines.

The 10 containers of rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition, and other prohibited items disguised as oil equipment found on board had been ordered by the Tehran-based Tadbir Sanaat Sharif Technology Development Center (TSS). TSS is a subsidiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and both of them plus the South African company, Icarus Marine (Pty) Ltd., were named in a U.S. Commerce Department Bureau of Industry and Security Temporary Denial Order (TDO) on 14 April 2009.

At that time, the TDO was imposed because IRISL and TSS were about to take delivery of a Bladerunner S1 powerboat, the “Bradstone Challenger,” for intended use by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Bradstone Challenger caught the Commerce Department’s attention not only because it features U.S.-origin engines and other components, but because it is a highly-capable fast attack craft that the IRGC arms with torpedoes, rocket launchers, and anti-ship missiles and sends out in swarms to harass U.S. ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz.

The original TDO carried an expiration date of 22 July 2009. The ANL Australia reportedly was seized at the end of July. Even though the entire IRGC, IRISL and its naval fleets are listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as Specially Designated Nationals to which unlicensed export or re-export of prohibited items is a violation of U.S. Export Administration Regulations, somehow it doesn’t come as any real shock that regimes evil enough to rape young girls before execution and use political prisoner populations to test biological weapons agents just might choose to disregard such niceties — or wait for their expiration date.

This is where the picture really begins to not make much sense. The UAE, and especially Dubai, is a known hub for the transshipment of all manner of goods, legitimate and not, including weapons and Afghan heroin, into and out of Iran. The large Iranian expatriate community in the UAE supports the tight economic relationship with the IRGC-dominated mullahs’ regime in Tehran. But at a time when the international spotlight is focused more than ever on North Korean ships heading for the Middle East, it seems odd that Iran would be giving a green light to a weapons cargo like this. It also begs the question why the weapons discovered on the one ship to have been turned in by the UAE (thus far) are so mundane. Kudos to the UAE for this demonstration of support for the UNSC sanctions, but is a batch of RPGs really the worst cargo putting in to Abu Dhabi these days?

It gets worse. On August 19, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson played host to two North Korean diplomats from Pyongyang’s U.N. mission. Gurgling happily about a possible “thaw” in relations, Gov. Richardson told reporters afterward that North Korea is ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. (again).

This upbeat announcement comes shortly on the heels of former President Bill Clinton’s 4 August visit to North Korea, where he obtained the release of two American journalists held by Kim Jong Il’s regime after they had ‘strayed’ into North Korean territory. Gov. Richardson hinted helpfully that the North Koreans obviously feel entitled to some kind of reward for having let the two reporters go free. Myanmar’s military junta might be looking for some quid pro quo of its own after permitting yet another wayward American to leave that country on August 16 in the company of visiting U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who’d negotiated his release.

John William Yetlaw is the swimmer who violated the house arrest restrictions on Myanmar’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb, too, burbled cheerily to reporters, telling them about the atmosphere of goodwill and trust that is building with the genocidal generals of Rangoon.

The capstone episode of the summer was the 21 August release of Pakistan’s father of the Islamic bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, from all restrictions on his movement. The nuclear scientist whose black market proliferation activities spanned the globe and gave Iran and Libya the foundations of their nuclear weapons programs, A.Q. Khan will now be free to resume his busy career on behalf of a country beset with a jihadist threat both from within and without.

The Obama administration must surely have known about the seized North Korean ship and its weapons cargo before granting the special approvals required for the North Korean diplomats to travel from New York to Santa Fe. It probably knew about it even before President Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang. Whether the White House or Intelligence Community had any advance knowledge about AQ Khan’s impending release is not publicly known.

If there is any connection between these various events, it is not immediately apparent what it is. But what is both obvious and worrisome is that this administration lacks a strategic framework of principles and objectives for dealing with a very real and very active axis of evil that means harm to U.S. national security.

As the renowned Purdue University law professor, Louis Rene Beres, likes to say, “International law is not a suicide pact.” If North Korea and Pakistan are permitted to continue aiding and abetting Iran, Myanmar, Syria, and who knows who else to “go nuclear,” American strategic doctrine will have to scramble to persuade anyone that the U.S. retains truly persuasive military power and the will to use it.

Given the events of August 2009 and the alliances both obvious and concealed (such as Iran’s long-standing relationship with al-Qa’eda) that are moving inexorably to acquisition of catastrophic offensive power, a U.S. policy that incapacitates our intelligence capabilities, abandons our missile defense shield, makes nuclear Global Zero a national priority, and pleads piteously for reciprocity from the thugs of the world, exposes us all to Armageddon.


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